The talks beginning late Monday at the U.S. mission to the United Nations will be highest-level U.S.-North Korean meeting on American soil since 2000, when Pyongyang sent a senior envoy to Washington near the end of the Clinton administration.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Kwan will be setting up a working group intended to open the way to normalization of relations under the nuclear deal reached last month in Beijing.
The February 13th agreement at the Chinese-sponsored six-party talks obligates North Korea to shut down its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon within 60 days in exchange for 50-thousand tons of fuel oil.
Over the long term in the multi-stage accord, North Korea is to declare and irreversibly end all aspects of its nuclear program for a million tons of oil or equivalent aid and other benefits including normal relations with Washington.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test last October with a device intelligence officials believe was made from plutonium harvested from the Yongbyon reactor. But the United States believes North Korea also had a parallel enriched-uranium project and admitted its existence during a visit by a U.S. envoy in 2002.
In a talk with reporters, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reiterated a statement by Assistant Secretary Hill on Sunday that North Korea needs to account for, and eliminate, all aspects of its nuclear program including the uranium project:
"I refer you to the intelligence community for their assessment of the state and nature of that H.E.U. (highly-enriched uranium) program, but none-the-less we believe there is one. The North Koreans have admitted to one and they, in the process of denuclearization, would need to come clean on that program and eventually dismantle that program, along with their other nuclear programs."
After the October 2002 visit by U.S. envoy James Kelly, North Korea denied having an enriched-uranium bomb project, and a senior intelligence official told Congress earlier this month U.S. officials are not highly-confident North Korea ever produced uranium suitable for a bomb.
Assistant Secretary Hill, who was chief U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, says the working group he will set up with his North Korean counterpart will establish an agenda for normalizing relations, including what will be required for removing North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
North Korea has been listed as a terrorism sponsor since 1988 but the State Department said in its most recent annual report on the issue that Pyongyang is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987.
The February 13th six-party accord has come under criticism from U.S. conservatives, notably John Bolton of the American Enterprise Institute, who until late last year was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
In a Wall Street Journal commentary, Bolton faulted the deal for relying excessively on the International Atomic Energy Agency for verification of North Korean compliance.
He said North Korea's record of what he termed "aggressive mendacity" requires the most intrusive of verification systems and that if the current approach is followed, in his words, an "already bad deal will become a dangerous deal."